Monday, April 20, 2009

Crazy Fingers - Grateful Dead Song Review

My favorite Grateful Dead song. I've contemplated making a list and it would definitely evolve over time but this one would always be number 1. It actually is so great I've been stalling on writing about it because, I just don't know if you can do the song justice. But I try....

First of all, Crazy Fingers wasn't my favorite song at first. It took years to really appreciate it. I did see it at my first show on May 15th, 1993 (Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas - Saturday night show) and the melody of the verse really was great and memorable, but the song requires a fine appreciation for the Dead to really absorb how unique and original it is.

Crazy Fingers is a slow, middling tune that was pretty inconsistent in it's delivery over the years. The studio version from Blues for Allah is extremely tight and well executed and just creates an aura of a really good mellow, mature, psychedelic reggae song (psychedelic reggae - not a genre you often hear about and maybe still not that accurate for this song but that shows how original this song really is).

The early live versions of this song held pretty true to the form on Blues for Allah (most notably from One for the Vault) including the guitar flanger effect. Naturally, I prefer the song the way it evolved into the nineties - but probably not the very last couple of years because I really like my Crazy Fingers to be crisply delivered and it did get really loose in the last couple of years. An absolutely phenomenal version of the song is on youtube from Dean Smith Center, North Carolina in 1993. That version has such a great solo on it with just the right amount of sparkling reverb and delay and Jerry taking the lyrical soaring leads seemingly in slow motion. The solo in Crazy Fingers is always a highlight for me, and is always delivered with just the right amount of effects. While it outlines the verse melody, it is still always thoughtfully and lyrically delivered in a unique and improvisational way - no two Crazy Fingers solos are the same (after the first few bars).

Before I even get into the words I must point out that Crazy Fingers is SO UNIQUE in its composition. From the slow haunting intro Jerry would play to the almost dissonant bridge section Life may be sweeter for this, I don't know.... to the bass heavy jam outro it is just like nothing else out there (and please do tell if there is other music you know of similar to this I would love to hear it).

The first hundred or so times I heard Crazy Fingers I think the melody on the bridge section (ie where they sing Gone are the days... we stopped to decide...) might have just rubbed my ears the wrong way, but now I can really appreciate the harmonic quality of the change and know that it is non traditional and therefore unfamiliar. It pushes the boundaries of the beautiful harmony that is established in the verses and is congruent with the dual nature of the lyrics that are joyous and beautiful but also about sadness and loss. The bridge really works with the song and breaks it up perfectly because while the verse melody is extremely pretty, it is a bit simple.

Now I have to talk about the words. I just can't do these lyrics justice. I've read them described as a haiku before (I think even by Robert Hunter's own description) but they are not the kind of (5-7-5) Haiku that I remember learning to create in elementary school.

The entire song is just perfect but a couple of favorite sections:

Cloud hands, reaching from a rainbow,
tapping at your window
touch your hair

So swift and bright,
strange figures of light
float in air

So this is just psychedelia at its finest. This sounds like the best LSD experience of all time. Those lines always make me picture the most beautiful imagery and fill me with a sense of wonder at what beauty exists in nature that we may not comprehend until a moment when we are "opened up" to the beauty surrounding us.

Hang your heart on a laughing willow
stray down to the water
deep sea of love...

Beneath the sweet calm face of the sea
swift undertow

Deep stuff. This reminds me of the uneasy feeling that comes along with tripping when you contemplate that loving others and having relationships with them carries with it a risk of being disappointed in a way that can wound you more than any physical injury. Also, how could this line not require a mention of the fact that Jerry Garcia's father drowned when Jerry was just a young boy.

This song is mostly joyous but there is also a dark duality to it that reminds of the temporal fleeting nature of this life which is endlessly slipping by.

Finally, the best line of all:

Midnight on a carousel ride
reaching for the gold ring down inside

Never couldd reach it...
just slips away...
but I try...

So you take the man Jerry Garcia (and include his writing partner Robert Hunter) and you have artists who continually evolved and kept pushing the envelope for almost thirty years - never playing it safe or going for the easy home run but continually searching for another hidden musical gem, another magical combination of songs, another performance to bring audience and performer to a higher level of consciousness. In my opinion this is the highest calling someone can hope to fulfill in this life and Jerry and Robert were able to inspire people with their music and words for decades to the point that I am still chronicling it fourteen years after it came to an end in August 1995 (keep in mind I only really knew the Dead for two years at that point and consider what an impact it must have made on me).

So they never reached the gold ring? Maybe. But they helped inspired us to reach for ours within ourselves- it is the greatest gift you can give. I think that this is the effect that the wizards, shamans, and holy men who've been chronicled throughout the ages have had on people. This is the true magic, and this song is a spell.


Crazy Fingers
Song Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 10.0

Disclaimer
: This is part of my review of every Grateful Dead song from A-Z. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

8 comments:

Philip said...

Awesome.

I completely agree. I've been getting progressively more into the GD for about 10 years. I'm 26 now, never saw them live, never had anyone try to turn me on to their music, I just stumbled across it and my life is "sweeter for this".

After listening to this song a handful of times I never really got into it. Then I saw The Dead at IZOD 4/29/09. They played Crazy Fingers. I was f*cking floored. How could I have missed this song. Truly amazing.

Wow.

PB said...

Well said. Completely agree that I did not love Fingers early on. Then again, I was 15/16 years old and had not yet come close to having the life experience necessary to truly appreciate this tune. I always felt this was one of the last truly psychedellic tunes that Jerry wrote. Somewhere around 1991 I began to love this song. By then, I had been seeing the band for about 4 years. It came to be a show I wanted to see. Although, there were many occasions where Jerry would mumble. But, when sung with conviction, it is completely sublime.

BaabaMC said...

Naming a favorite GD song is like naming a favorite Beatles or Dylan song. There's so many good ones, my favorites for each change often, depending on the moment. At the moment, Crazy Fingers is probably my favorite, and has been one of my favorites since hearing it for the first time at my first GD show at RFK Stadium in 1992. Best version I ever heard was the one referred to in the article, 1993 at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, NC. Jerry was just back from losing all the weight and quitting smoking--let's just say the whole crowd was floored when we saw him take the stage, slimmer than he had been in many years, singing clearer and stronger, and far more physically active on stage as well. One of my favorite memories from that era of my life. The chord progression and lyrics are top-notch--haunting and beautiful.

GDmike said...

Thanks for this comment BaabaMC, I really appreciate it. I was 'locked out' of my blog for close to 3 years due to some gmail/google issues (spawned by user error!), but I'm back and I am glad to hear the additional comments about Crazy Fingers - especially about the sparkling version from the Dean Dome - that rendition means a lot to me and must've been amazing to see live.

GDmike said...

PB - PERFECTLY STATED. I could not agree more with every part of your comment. The thing about Crazy Fingers is that it can easily suck due to bungled changes, forgotten words, a crappy outro... it's a "high risk high reward song" because when it works, its EPIC! Sorry for the late reply, I was 'locked out' of the blog for close to 3 years due to some gmail/google issues (due to my user error!).

GDmike said...

RIGHT, isn't it weird how some of the greatest tunes in our lives don't grab us at first! Weird. Thanks for sharing that... and sorry for the late reply, I was 'locked out' of the blog for close to 3 years due to some gmail/google issues (due to my user error!)

August West said...

Come on now Dave's Picks. We need another Crazy Fingers from your vault!

GDmike said...

couldn't agree more